A new study suggests the media is failing to report important conflicts of interest in medical stories, almost half of the time.

A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, analysed four years worth of media coverage of drug-company funded medical research.

The study found almost half of all these newspaper and on-line medical stories, 42 per cent, failed to mention the fact that a drug company had funded the research being written about in the medical story.

More importantly perhaps, the authors of the study surveyed newspaper editors and found that 88 per cent of those editors believed their papers “always or often” reported if a drug company had funded research.

The findings are doubly troubling because there is strong evidence that drug company-sponsored research is far more likely to find favourable results than independently funded research.

These new findings are the latest reminder that a lot of medical reporting is extremely unhealthy- failing to inform audiences of the most basic facts — like whether a study with glowing results for a drug has been sponsored by the drug’s manufacturer.

I published one of the early studies of medical reporting in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2000, showing many newspaper and television stories about medicines exaggerated benefits, ignored potential harms and failed to report on important conflicts-of-interest: like whether an expert spruiking a drug was on the manufacturer’s payroll.

Since then similar studies from the United States, Canada and Norway have come up with similar findings, reinforcing the view this is a world-wide problem with much medical reporting, just as evident in Australia as elsewhere.

The problem of course is that too many medical stories look more like promotion than journalism — and have been driven by the powerful marketing machinery of one of the most profitable industries on the planet.

Clearly there’s also a lot of great medical journalism, recent investigative work in Australia on the links between surgeons and device makers immediately comes to mind, but there is abundant evidence that too much is sloppy and misleading regurgitation of press releases.

This issue of misleading medical media coverage is a big one globally, not least among journalists themselves who want to lift their game. The Association of Health Care Journalists in the United States has been addressing the issue and I am presenting at two conferences in Europe this month on the issue, including a presentation at the national conference of German science writers.

One easy and quick way to start fixing the problem is for editors to require journalists covering medical or health stories to routinely include information about conflicts of interest – particularly if they are quoting an expert the payroll, or research that has been industry funded- an approach flagged in my simple “Tip Sheet” for journalists covering health care.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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